Gotland: The Highlight of My Scandinavian Travels
Just a few days ago I returned to Uppsala from Gotland, an island about 90km (55 miles) east of the Swedish mainland. The largest Swedish island, it has been a part of Swedish, Scandinavian, Viking, and general European history since the Stone Age. I went there as a part of an excursion in my geomorphology class and was blown away by what I saw. The countryside is indescribably stunning and the geological, ecological, and historic imprints left on the island are equally astounding. Due to its position in the Baltic Sea, which places it between Russia, Eastern Europe, and Scandinavia, Gotland has been used as a trade junction for thousands of years. Due to this traffic, Gotland has been influenced by many different cultures through time. More so than any other though, the Vikings have remained integral in Gotland’s cultural signature.
The spiritually artistic graves of old Viking kings, the cryptic game fields left behind by old Nordic communities, and the numerous fishing villages which remain on Gotland serve as reminders of cultures and eras gone by. While there I took a particular interest in the Nordic burial process. Like most cultures, Vikings buried their dead; particularly their important leaders. However, the Nordic burial ritual is a bit unique. Viking kings were buried in their favorite longboats along with their best horses and hunting dogs. The kings’ men would then erect (outlines of) symbolic limestone longboats around the kings’ graves. Like many other early cultures Vikings were quite religious. It was their belief that by burying a deceased leader in a trustworthy ship, that leader would then have a vehicle to ride into the afterlife. In addition to this mythology, ships had major cultural significance for Nordic communities. They provided a means by which to fish, travel, and conquer the seas. In many respects the Viking longboat was the single most important technological innovation and possession of the Viking peoples, and its significance is preserved in the ancient ruins of the Gotland landscapes.
Due to the density of its natural resources, Gotland has been fought over for generations. Limestone, sandstone, fish, and poultry are just some of the resources that Gotlanders have historically extracted from the region’s diverse environments. Since the Middle Ages though, limestone was the region’s most valuable and prized commodity. For hundreds of years limestone has been used by Gotlanders for construction, art, and indirectly, travel. Being positioned at a profitable trade junction enabled Gotland’s local communities and leaders to construct massive churches, walls, and monuments. It would not be possible to generate this profit without traversable roads, so limestone was used to construct cobblestone paths throughout the cities and the island as a whole. Much of the island, however, remains unpaved to this day.
Despite my fascination with Gotland’s commercial and developmental history, I was equally enamored with the emphasis placed on the preservation of its natural beauty. Much of the island remains rural and unchanged by human activity. Its stunning coastlines are not littered with expensive resorts, businesses, or trash. The locals protect the natural beauty of their home with a passionate tenacity that I wish more Americans shared. Of course, I am a natural scientist, so I take particular offense to the destruction of natural beauty, but I believe that anyone who visits Gotland will be deeply amazed by what they see in the ancient landscapes.
The geographic location of Gotland has played a huge part in shaping local cultures, but it has majorly affected the geological landscapes as well. Changes in the landscape, which have been taking place for unimaginable lengths of time, are preserved in natural formations and geological settings. The beaches record the different ways in which the land has risen, fallen, shifted, and stalled. The sea stacks, arches, and caves reflect the periodic changes in the tides, the catastrophic storms endured by the island’s coastlines, and the depositional history of the land. The fossils embedded in Gotland’s sediments reveal how marine organisms have been evolving for millions of years and give us a glimpse into the times before time.
Perhaps my fascination with these sorts of natural wonders are only a product of my awe of natural processes in general, but I truly believe that if a person takes the time to learn about them, it is impossible not to experience something truly profound. In many ways, I feel that my experience on Gotland parallels and reinforces my opinion of studying abroad. I have spent hours reading about wave dynamics, coastal landforms, and paleobiology, but actually holding the fossil of an organism which lived hundreds of millions of years ago, or reaching out to touch the petrified lichen lining the side of a sea stack is simply incomparable. Observing a culture through the pages of a book can of course be educational, however embracing and being embraced by that culture through real-life exposure is the best way to truly understand it and in so doing truly understand ourselves.